The Aspirational as Affective Fact

So what is an affective fact? The mechanism is quite simple:
Threat triggers fear. The fear is of disruption. The fear is a disruption.

Brian Massumi’s concept of the “affective fact” was an attempt to come to terms with post-911 governance by George Bush Jr. The concept foregrounds the virtual in governance. In The Future Birth of the Affective Fact, Massumi writes:

The event’s consequences precede it, as if it had already occurred. It event remains virtual – future-past — but is real and present in its effects. The present reality of its effects mean that it can be responded to pragmatically all the while remaining virtual.

The discursive logic of narrative is peripheral to the tautological logic of effecting causes. Governance by affective fact works to produce indexical signs of a future event (fire) to cause an event in the present (smoke); Massumi describes this as a “semiotics of alarm”. He writes, the “affective fact induced by the indexical sign of alarm is that there was in effect a danger, as certainly as there was an alert”. Affect serves as a mechanism in the operational linkage between the possibility of danger and the undeniable factuality of the alarm.

In Australia, the state of affairs was somewhat different. The long decade of John Howard’s conservative coalition was premised on economic growth and even after the Bali terrorist attacks Australia did not invest in governmental modes of security as much as the US. One of the key qualities of Australian situation was the rise of what was called the “aspirational voter“:

upwardly mobile men and women on the make, buying their name-brand values off the self, devoid of any class or political loyalty, defined only by their purchasing power and their driving ambition to acquire the gadgets and graces of the middle class.

Instead of trying to fill the discursive position of the aspirational with an empirical account of those who roughly do (or do not) fulfil most of the requirements of being considered ‘aspirational’ as an identity category, I want to consider aspirationalism as indicating a series of affective facts. Aspirationalism is a movement or process with a number of qualities, here are two:

1. Becoming-majoritarian

The aspirational wants to be part of the ‘majority’. The ‘majority’ does not have to be counted as an actual majority, only represented as such. There is no conservative and progressive or right/left only majoritarianism and minoritarianism. The majoritarian are the ‘winners’ in a competition they create. The aspirational does not understand how this could ever be a criticism: it is natural to compete for scarce resources, therefore it makes perfect sense to barrack for the winning team.

2. Probe-heads of opportunity

If the paranoid governmental apparatus is characterised by an overemphasis on security concerns, then the aspirational governmental apparatus singularly attends to economic growth. The affective fact of aspirationalism is the ‘opportunity’.  An opportunity is a particular kind of configuration of social relations where someone benefits in the future based on present action. More importantly, however, is that an ‘opportunity’ in the current composition of governance serves as an invitation to become (more) majoritarian. This is now defined almost entirely on economic grounds. Importantly, this is experienced as a positive affect — in the Spinozist sense of increasing one’s capacity to act — even though it is an affection of one’s aspirational majoritarian peers.

Fairfax Media and Newspaper Next

My colleague Jason Wilson has attacked the Finkelstein Independent Media Inquiry report in the context of the Fairfax restructure announced today. Jason writes:

The Independent Media Inquiry bent over backwards to demonstrate the peristence of media power in order to build a case for regulating it further. But the real story is that traditional media are in a death spiral. These have been major social institutions. Despite what many see as their poor performance in recent years, it’s not clear what exists to replace them in that role.

The Independent Media Inquiry investigated whether or not governmental regulation and/or support would be appropriate in the context of the shifting composition of an industry sector. All major media companies in Australia made submissions that suggested that government support would be unwarranted. The report references a number of submissions and introduces and then quotes from the Fairfax submission thus:

Notably none of the established newspapers felt there was a need for government support. The submission by Fairfax Media states:

No one can deny that the traditional media business models have been severely challenged by the growth of the Internet. That said Fairfax does not support the proposition that independent journalism needs assistance by way of Government subsidy or tax breaks as have been suggested by some submissions … Media organisations need to transform themselves to account for the changing needs of audiences as the digital and online platforms continue to evolve. Existing revenue streams need to grow and new revenue sources need to be found and sustained.

It seems that is precisely what Fairfax are doing at present.

Two other points are worth making in the context of the analysis by the Independent Media Inquiry Report. Firstly, the report analyses the democratic function of the news media (what Jason refers to in terms of them having been ‘major social institutions’) from the government’s perspective, not the perspective of individual journalists or companies. I do not agree with Jason that the Independent Media Inquiry was tasked or even should have been tasked with providing an industry with strategic solutions to their commercial problems. Chapter 12 of the report engages with the problem of ensuring industry-wide ‘journalistic capacity’ to produce ‘quality journalism’, which is slightly unconventional for a media analysis. Most media analyses fall into the political economy perspective or correlating ownership or the identity of news producers in general with a normative sense of ‘diversity’. ‘Diversity’ was mentioned in the terms of reference, but this was developed into ‘journalistic capacity’ in the report. Nor does the report explore even a single example of a specific news outlet or business model. Clearly, this would have been inappropriate. Imagine the furore unleashed by the culture warriors at The Australian if the report made forthright suggestions regarding how businesses should operate!?!

 

Is this a ‘desperate’ move by Fairfax?

Here is a brief extract from a discussion I had with Jason and Jonathon on Twitter.
 

Clearly, they both believe, as does Jonathon Green, that Fairfax’s move to be ‘desperate’. Is it?

 

The Long View

The second point to be made about the Independent Media Inquiry is regarding the absence of the kind of suggestions (as noted by Jason) and if they are not in the report, then where such information can be found. A fantastic starting point for anyone interested in how this may (or may not) play out is the Newspaper Next experiment from the the American Press Institute. Proper historical research is required to analyse the last two decades of of shifting business models, as a way to ward off the boosterism of an always future leaning opinion makers. Less ‘this is what you should do’ (or in the case of Fairfax the schadenfreude of the inverse boosterist ‘this is what you should have done 10 years ago’) and more ‘this is what has and has not worked in this context’. The chronic boosterism of ‘internet evangelists’ manifest in the rush to be ‘in front’ of every other voice in the marketplace of opinion means that existing experiments such as Newspaper Next are often forgotten.   

Two major reports were released as part of the experiment, and a third smaller report. One from 2006 announcing the project, another two years later reporting on those media companies following through with the Newspaper Next experiment and a third on using ‘Interactive Databases’ (I’ve uploaded the first two reports to Scribd, because it seems that the API has removed Newspaper Next from its site). I’ve got an academic article in the works that analyses both major reports in terms of the way they discuss ‘opportunity’; it is a curious example of thinking ‘opportunity’ as the necessary restructure of markets (by way of attempting to forge new stabilising social neworks that reproduce markets and therefore stability of revenue streams, etc).

The first report presents some of the conceptual background in thinking about the changes to the US newspaper industry based on notions of ‘disruptive innovation’ and the main points are capture in above diagram (page 19). Some rightly criticised the experiment and the report specifically for being ‘all talk’. Indeed, it does have a certain boosterist tone about it. There is some good ideas amongst all the enthusiasm however.

The second report presents 24 case studies of new products and seven examples of how newspaper companies organized and financed innovation. The most relevant example in the report is The Chicago Tribune. Unfortunately, even at this stage of the experiment it was clear that no newspapers would be willing to ‘make the leap’. As Rick Edmonds at Poynter reported at the time:

However, many of the experiments have stuck too closely to traditional core competencies, making money, for instance, by reverse publishing online material into print, still the comfort zone for the ad sales force. The result: the pace of change is unprecedented but not quick enough; most projects are too small and too slow to develop revenue on the scale needed. So the report urges newspapers companies to “make the leap” beyond news or even news and information.

Then check out this post by Steve Buttry, one of those involved in the Newspaper Next experiment. He was also apparently behind the third report on using interactive databases as a new kind of journalistic product. Steve’s point is that none of the news companies that engaged him or others to make presentations wanted to impliment the Newspaper Next blueprint.

The results were pretty much the same as the response to N2: Executives praised the ideas generally, but lacked the vision, courage and/or freedom to make such dramatic changes in their declining companies. Either N2 or C3 could have led the newspaper industry to a more prosperous future if companies had truly followed them. Instead the business has followed a defensive course of slashing costs, throwing up paywalls and waiting for a miracle.

My point is a very simple one: there has been a huge amount of work carried out in other local, national and international markets on what has worked and what has not worked in attempts to restructure individual companies. It is clear that Fairfax has to undergo a transition to a new business model. It is far from clear what transition model works best.

Maybe I am the only person (at least in my Twitter stream) who thinks that amongst all the commentary about the ‘desperation’ of Fairfax that they actually did something right in holding off from undergoing this transition? Does anyone have any figures on how much money has been wasted at other media organisations on ‘restructures’? obviously some changes should have been made sooner (such as the ‘digital first’ strategy and the integrated newsroom). However, if they had attempted to lock themselves into a new business model even a few years ago would they have the information they have now about what works, what doesn’t and the various different contexts and range of outcomes in between? Business leaders are inherently conservative, they are not going to invest in a company restructure that requires a market restructure at the same time. Not unless they have the ‘killer app’ anyway, but there is no ‘iPod’ solution to the challenges faced by the news industry.

The Politics of Affect: Using Anxiety as a Political Resource

There has been some productive discussion on Twitter around Jessica Irvine’s piece in Fairfax publications today Unpicking the Collective Whinge. In this post I shall engage with Irvine’s piece in the context of some of the discussion from Twitter and finish with a bit of an exploration into post-ideological politics. Irvine is working to diagnose a specific problem she identifies in the current Australian political climate: 

I’ve figured it out. I’ve figured out how Australia’s economic vital signs can be so good – low joblessness, low inflation, trend growth – and yet Australians can remain so resolutely miserable.

[…]

There can be only one answer: we are, as a nation, chucking a full-on, all-screaming, all-door-slamming teenage temper tantrum.

I agree with the problem she is identifiing, but not the diagnosis. My colleague Jason Wilson’s observation is that this diagnosis is typical of (small-L) liberal political punditry and I believe he is writing a blog post on the matter.

Nation of Whingers

For international readers, ‘whingeing’ is a bit like whining, but in Australian culture it has a particularly nationalistic inflection due to the characterisation of ‘whingeing poms’. Irvine is arguing that ‘whingeing’ is the modus operandi of most of the nation.  ‘Whingeing’ in this context means attempting to extract more value from the current composition of arrangements (‘rentseeking’), normally via some kind of government-based dividend (reduction of regulation or increased welfare). She is collapsing two (or more) responses to the current economic situation in Australia, both of which are micro-economic responses to the apparently positive macro-economic well being of the entire national economy. Rather than diagnosing the problem as ‘whingeing’ my suggestion is that the current situation needs to be dissected to separate (at least) two levels social and political anxiety. 

  1. At the level of what Irvine calls ‘business’, she describes how they are “chucking hissy fits about workplace laws and taxation”. Shes notes that “most of the tantrums come from big business in Australia – the banks, resource companies and retailers that generally operate under little competitive pressure and enjoy a captive customer base.”
  2. At the level of ‘consumers’ and Irvine’s deployment of a collective ‘we’ (which I’ll take to mean salaried employees and non-big business owners) and others who have high household debt. They are “complaining about the cost of living and wailing about any attempts to wind back a bloated welfare system”.

Rather than bundling up all responses to the apparently positive macro-economic health of the nation in terms of ‘whinging’ it makes better sense at an analytical level to separate (at least) two responses and critically engage with them on their own terms. In response to Jason’s comments, in my tweets I suggested there was a kind of dissonance being experienced because of the apparent contradiction of the relatively good macro-economic health and wellbeing of the national economy versus the experience of dominant neo-liberal modes of workplace management and performance-based audit culture. In a performance-based audit culture all workplace activity is measured against performance-based indexes. Certain ‘targets’ need to be met: sales targets, satisfaction targets, conversion targets and so on. This is a naked attempt to extract more labour from workers, particularly when the ‘targets’ are not realistic. But it is only own example of the ‘insecurity’ experienced at the level of the individual or household. The pressure experienced by individuals and ‘households’ radically increases once a huge debt burden is factored into the equation. The sloganistic description of this mode of capitalism is to “Privatise profits and socialise risk.”

I’m updating this post 23/5/12 with comments from Ross Gittin, economics writer at the Sydney Morning Herald, who hits the nail on the head with his column about the self-interest of business people who frame changes to superannuation and tax regulations in ways to suit themselves:

David Anderson, the managing director of Mercer, a financial services provider, warns that ”continual changes to superannuation will unfortunately create a wave of uncertainty, confirming the commonly-held view that superannuation is an irresistible honey pot”. ”There is a risk that further complicating and continually changing the rules in superannuation will reduce investor confidence in super and that would be a most unfortunate outcome,” he says. Sorry, but most of all that is self-serving tosh. […]

The media have a tendency to quote uncritically business spokespeople who want to have a crack at the government of the day. But most of them are wolves in sheep’s clothing. They claim to be speaking in the interests of their customers but, for the most part, they are, in the money market phrase, ”talking their book” – that is, offering advice that serves their own interests. Even when measures have been carefully targeted to hit only the well off, they’ll be shedding bitter tears and predicting dire consequences. Why? Partly because they’re very highly paid themselves but mainly because they make more money out of the rich than the poor.

I want to make a further critical point about why it is necessary to separate the two levels and I want to relate to the move from ideologically-based poltical arguments to a post-ideological context. The problems of big business are not ‘our’ problems. ‘Our’ problems are not the problems of big business. Irvine’s piece would’ve been far stronger had she made this explicit distinction in her column.

On the Shared Experience of Anxiety

 The current mainstream media continually produces stories that attempt to forge a connection between the experience of dissatisfaction because of insecurity with the current government or state of affairs. This is the absolute travesty of media reports about the mining tax or the so-called ‘carbon tax’. The Australian newspaper has been particularly virolent in its efforts to forge this connection and then using it to attack the current minority Labor government under the aegis of ‘holding them to account’. The end result is that the very real feeling of insecurity at the level of the individual or household is rearticulated as the consequence of the ‘same’ problems that ‘business’ is using to win rentseeking concessions from government.

In late-1970s versions of Marxist-inflected media studies, this would’ve been interpreted as a classic example of the hegemonic effect of the mainstream media being in the pockets of capitalists. Basically the media is being used to suture over apparent class contradictions. The ‘consumers’ and ‘householders’ have come to perceive the world in ways that benefit the ‘business’ classes. Fear and anxiety are often used as the currency or building blocks of such an approach. If you experience ‘fear’ or ‘anxiety’ then whatever the situation is must be ‘real’ as you otherwise would not feel such emotions. The now ubiquitous ‘moral panic’ is an example of this work. Isolate a ‘folk devil’, represent them as the cause (rather than symptom) of some stuctural tension, and reap the political capital benefits.

The current situation is different. ‘Insecurity’ is experienced as anxiety or even dread about whether or not ‘we’ are able (and importantly continue to be able) to afford the ‘costs of living’. ‘Costs of living’ bundles up a large number of diverse expenditures for a diverse range of people. Does it refer to current costs of health insurance? Or rent and housing? Mobility in the form of ongoing registration and fueling of a vehicle? Time and money costs of public transport? Food and clothing? Irvine reduces all this to a paternalistic and cynical ‘lolly prices’:

True, lolly prices were rising, particularly on consumer sensitive items like petrol, food, education and health. But average income gains were more than enough to offset the rises for most, if not all, Australian households.

‘We’ don’t have a large degree of control over most of these costs. We can ‘choose’ not to have private health insurance or ‘choose’ not to have a car, but the quality of life can change considerably. If this was an ideological move, then the average punter would believe the same thing that the ‘business’ class believes. To some extent they do, but the point I want to make is that this is premised on a shared experienced of anxiety.

Post-Ideological Politics?

In Anti-Oedipus, French philosopher, Gilles Deleuze, and post-Lacanian psychoanalyst, Felix Guattari, (in)famously declared: “There is no ideology and never has been” (4). They were discussing literature, describing it as a ‘machine’. They were primarily concerned with the way ‘desire’ is invested throughout the social field and developed the concept of ‘machines’ to reframe the problem.

The ‘literature machine’ is an assemblage of books, people, cultural events, language, logistical apparatuses of the publishing industry and so on that cuts off or opens up flows of desire; using ‘desire’ as a resource, such ‘machines’ produce the social field itself. Desire is in ‘scarequotes’ because Deleuze and Guattari modify the classic neo-Freudian conceptualisation of ‘desire’ as a ‘libidinal force’ to argue that ‘desire’ has an ontological valence actualised as the ‘social reality’ encountered as the product of ‘machines’.

In more recent developments engaging with similar problematics this ‘desire’ is more often discussed in terms of ‘affect’. This was also the trajectory of Deleuze and Guattari’s own work developing from Anti-Oedipus to their follow up volume A Thousand Plateaus.

What I find fascinating about Irvine’s latest column is that it is an example of what Deleuze and Guattari call ‘Oedipalization’. The social field is described in terms of being a ‘family’ with the paternalistic government trying to deal with the ‘teenage tantrums’ of both ‘business’ and ‘us’. It is up to the government ‘parents’ to intervene:

In the teenage economy, the returns from rentseeking – or seeking special treatment from mum and dad – are higher than the returns from productive pursuits, like actually innovating business practices. Business chucks a tantrum because it’s easier to manipulate mum into given you $20 than going out and getting a job and earning it yourself.

What then of the character of post-ideological politics? There has long been an anxiety about post-rational politics. This means thinking about politics as involving emotion, feeling and ‘affect’. Some authors describe this in terms of the aestheticisation of politics and turn to the great facist movements of the 20th century. I don’t think this is the case here, however.

To feel this level of anxiety about the current state of affairs means ‘you’ are thinking through a range of issues, calculating household budgets, contemplating how various macro-economic indicators will affect your micro-economic wellbeing. Rather than affect being purely autonomous, the current political discourse locates it within a framework of macro-economic wellbeing. For example, within the machinery of political commentary ‘interest rates’ function as a thermostat of anxiety and the affective contexture of the nation more generally.

Interest rates and commentary about interest rates are used to ‘modulate’ the affective state of a large group of anxious people. As Brian Massumi notes if you take seriously the colour-coded terror alert system developed to inform US citizens about possible terrorist threats, then you should always be in a state of alertness. There is no ‘safe’ setting. As Massumi puts it: “The alert system was introduced to calibrate the public’s anxiety.”

Using Anxiety as a Political Resource

The contradiction between macro-economic wellbeing and micro-economic anxiety is being used to fuel a politics of frustration.  What Irvine misses in her column is that most of the activity of ‘us’ that she describes captures those things we are meant to be doing as fully functioning members of society. Having families, buying homes, trying to maintain a career and so on, yet the anxiety around future micro-economic conditions is still apparent. What if a general anxiety about ‘costs of living’ was precisely the point of the current neoliberal machinations? What if the duopoloy of Coles and Woolworths benefit from an anxiety about fuel and food costs? What if banks and other loans and credit card providers produce anxiety about ther products (intentionally or not)? Who benefits from this politics of anxiety?

Make the Most of Career Opportunity!

What does it mean to have a tactical relation to opportunity? What is an ‘opportunity’? What are the affects of ‘opportunity’?

Mel Gregg has an excellent post In Praise of Strategic Complacency over at Home Cooked Theory. In it she is critiquing of the neoliberal discourse through which most academics are encouraged to understand their careers. A key term in this neoliberal discourse is ‘opportunity’. Mel writes:

It’s not enough to have gotten the job. No, landing the job is just the first step in a constant process of planning, assessing and maximizing “opportunities”. From now on, there will be little if any time to sit back and acknowledge your achievements, and yet part of what I want to suggest today is that you must fight for this time. And beware of people offering “opportunities”!
[…]
The model of worker that is rewarded today is that which is endlessly, limitlessly productive. The university will take everything from you if you let it. There are minimum performance levels but you’ll note that there are no maximums.

Mel warns that “there is no temporal or spatial limit to the networked information economy that employs you”. Rather than the entrepreneurial grind of ‘maximising opportunity’ she challenges us to rethink academic practice on a number of levels. See her post for the details.

I’ve previously written about the ontology of opportunity. The discourse of ‘opportunity’ belongs to the master narrative of neoliberalism. From a structural perspective, the role of government, business and social institutions is to ensure that subjects have access to ‘opportunities’. The discourse of opportunity is couched in the language of self-actualisation (bordering on ‘self-help’) and entrepreneurialism. Capitalising on an opportunity requires a strategic view that locates the present in the context of a particular set of future outcomes. ‘Opportunity’ is a process, a practice and an event. More useful for thinking through the ontology of opportunity is the example of workplace relations (based on a previous post discussing Scale, Events and Object Oriented Philosophy).

‘Opportunity’ as a Mode of Neoliberal Governance

One of the central problems with the neoliberal discourse of ‘opportunity’ is that it presents an ontology of an ‘open’ future encouraging self-governance that smuggles in micro-teleologies. A useful way to think about this ‘open’ future of opportunity is in terms of a ‘contingency’. There is a ‘pay-off’ horizon where our tacit knowledge/appreciation of a given situation allows us to know what the ‘return’ (as in return on investment ROI) will be for a given opportunity. We are encouraged to seek out opportunities that push these boundaries.

Sometimes that ‘opportunity’ is one we are presented with (as Mel notes!). There is a continuum of opportunity that is differentiated by relations of futurity made possible by the character of contingency around which opportunity is organised.

1) If opportunity is presented by those in power (such as a manager/mentor to a worker/junior colleague), then the contingency is often disciplined in accordance with the outcomes of productivity demanded by the managers (or embodied institutional ‘outcomes’ by the mentor so they can be inherited via apprenticeship) and the way surplus value is extracted from the worker’s labour. This inherits the strategic relation to opportunity as reproduced by existing power relations between managers and workers, etc.

2) If opportunity presents ‘itself’, then it is because the contingency of labour relations and relations between worker productivity and the market have not been actualised. A new relation to the market can be actualised. This often happens for academics when shooting the breeze at conferences, through social media/blogging, and the like.

3) If a worker creates ‘opportunity’, then it is because he or she has critically appreciated the mechanics of labour relations and relations between worker productivity and the market in its virtuality (an example of what Deleuze called the ‘fourth-person singular’ and the practice of counter-effectuation); that is, the worker does not perceive the situation though the identity and horizon of experience of a ‘worker’ per se. The worker actively differentiates a new set of relations that can only be apprehended through action. This is a tactical relation to opportunity.

To enfranchise workers in the emergent entrepreneurial mode of workplaces organised by neoliberal discourses means equipping them with the capacity to appreciate the dynamics of managerial techniques and apprehend new conditions between labour and the market through the praxis of their own labour. It is not a matter of grasping the relations between specific individuals or objects (big or little) but of appreciating how the relations between individuals are actualised and differentially repeated in the actual conditions of experience.

Affects of ‘Opportunity’, Failure and Success: Between

I originally wrote about the event mechanics of opportunity in terms of parenting, but a similar paternalistic relationship can exist between mentors and junior colleagues. The disappointment of failing to ‘live up to expectation’ is evidence of an ‘opportunity failure’. The opportunity in these circumstances may have been produced for one person (say, a junior colleague) by others (mentor). Mentors are disappointed because the relations of futurity in part produced by them for their junior colleagues are not actualised in the way they expected. The mentors know the future in the sense they can draw on experience to produce their own expectations. If a junior colleague is talented and does not follow the relations of futurity produced by their mentors in a way that the mentors expect, then according to the mentors’ respective expectations, an opportunity is lost. Expectation here works to discipline relations of future; an expectation is a colonisation of futurity.

Beyond this paternalistic relation is more of a symbiotic or even quasi-parasitical relation between colleagues in a single workplace or distributed across the virtual ‘office’ (virtual in both Deleuzian and popular ‘online’ senses). I’ve focused mostly on the unknown dimensions of ‘opportunity’ and how these are transformed through practice into ‘outcomes’. An experienced-based knowledge of the topology of ‘opportunity’ is therefore produced through this experience. The striving required on behalf of a subject to actualise opportunities in practical ways has an explicitly affective dimension. Mel discusses this in terms of having a baby: “We have amnesia about how painful it is, because the end product is so amazing. To push the analogy: try to remember the pain, and that it can be very hard to make happen by force!”

There are multiple ‘activation contours’ which the subject of opportunity is mobilised by and passes through complex co-assemblies of affect. Here is a list of related affects-as-poetics; a beginning:

1. Hope. The wandering (Spinozist) joy of possible futures combined with a pragmatic investment of desire to realise these ideals.

2. Manic waiting. When you feel like you’re overwhelmed by a desparate unactionable urgency to act. Nervous, anxious, but forthright and awake at 3am.

3. Impassage. Portmanteau derived from Lyotard’s analysis of Kant’s ‘enthusiasm’. There is an impasse that serves as a passage; the impasse is at the dawn of Rumfield’s unknown unknowns. (I can’t go on, I’ll go on. The two I’s straddle the impasse; they are differential repetitions, etc.) Affirmation; joy, but in the trenches.

4. Grind. The end is in sight. Warding off hope, but allowing it to inhere or subsist just beyond the horizon of apprehension (the possibility of possibility, actualised as a virtuality). Steady as it goes, this is a hug from a modernist sculpture suffering from angles.

On Bernard Keane and Communities of Interest

Political correspondent for Crikey, Bernard Keane, has an interesting piece published yesterday addressing ‘how the internet messes with the game of media and party politics’.

Below are some remarks on Keane’s piece. First, some context: I’ve been teaching my third-year Online News journalism students about how to address a similar set of problems. Their major assessment is to come up with a case-study length pitch for an online media enterprise that targets a niche audience. Their first task was to isolate a specific area of interest around which organises a community of interest, and then build on it from there. Targeting a specific area of interest is relatively familiar to the broader media industry; it is what most magazines do. It is relatively unfamiliar for an ‘analog’ news industry still operating with a ‘pre-Convergence’ mindset, however. I am not sure what a news-based media industry would look like when targeting specific areas of interest as there is no direct homological relation between the news-based content-audience relations and what happens in magazines, or at least there isn’t yet. Except, of course, in the financial industries…

I think some more focus on what Keane means by the ‘community-generating power of the internet’ is needed as it is not properly explained in his piece. He provides an example (Occupy Wall Street protests) and describes one of the qualities of such communities (no longer geographically anchored, or using a phrase from McKenzie Wark, they exist in a ‘virtual geography’). I want to describe two of the primary ways the internet is different from print or broadcast era media for directly contributing to the production of communities. Then I’ll look at how these apply (or not) to the news-media industry.

The first way the internet contributes to the production of communities is best explained by pulling apart what is meant by ‘interest’ in the phrase ‘community of interest’. There is a continuum of ‘interest’ from passing attention-grabbing interest that quickly dissipates to the enduring and sometimes agonistic practices of enthusiasts. This distribution of interest was described by community practioners researching local community groups in Britain in the 1980s as ‘Organising Around Enthusiasm’. Online communities form where enthusiasts search for useful information that will help them solve a problem (what I call a ‘challenge’) combined with an actual community of congruent interests. In terms of ‘community’, the now-classic ‘online forum’ is the established form.

A great deal of research into not only online groups but off-line and pre-internet groups indicates that there is a minority of participants that do the majority of work in these communities. These people may not be the most engaged ‘enthusiasts’ in the sense of the ‘best’ enthusiasts who know how to solve a large degree of problems, rather they are the most involved in communities. It makes sense to talk about communities with strong or weak ties (ala Gladwell, and the risks invovled in participation online vs off-line), but a community only makes sense if you know what challenges characterise a given enthusiasm. What mobilises enthusiasts into action?

The two major reports of the excellent mid-2000s Newspaper Next initiative (2006 and 2008) framed what I am calling ‘challenges’ in a slightly different way. Basing their program for newspaper innovation on the work of business academics Clayton Christensen and Clark Gilbert, they discussed ‘jobs to be done’, rather than challenges:

The concept is surprisingly simple. It holds that customers do not really buy products, they hire them to get jobs done. For example, Intuit’s QuickBooks software made it easy for small business owners to accomplish an important job: Make sure my business doesn’t run out of cash. Some alternatives, such as pen and paper and Excel spreadsheets, were not good enough. Professional accounting software packages were too good — confusing and filled with unnecessary features. QuickBooks did the job better than any alternative and quickly took over the category. […]
Using the jobs-to-be-done concept requires first understanding the problems a customer faces in life or business. The most promising problems are those that people do often and consider important and where current solutions leave them frustrated. (20-21)

‘Jobs-to-be-done’ certainly makes sense for someone who comes out of a ‘business administration’ background. Translate this in a social or political context. Think about the most popular online communities, ‘jobs to be done’ stemming from parenting, working on cars, cooking and foodie culture, information technologies, etc. What ‘jobs-to-be-done’ are there for the Occupy Wall Street protesters? There is the everyday work of maintaining the protest spaces across the world and there are the larger ‘political’ jobs-to-be-done that haven’t not yet been properly articulated, i.e. a list of demands. One of the main jobs-to-be-done of the protesters in say Melbourne or Sydney is to perform solidarity for those in New York. That is, by the way, why I prefer ‘challenge’, as a ‘challenge’ can be articulated or repeated in a number of different ways and still be a singular event.

Secondly, online communities produce multiple publics, but not publics imagined following ‘public sphere’ discourse. The problem with the ‘public sphere’ discourse, adapted from the work of Habermas and others, is that ‘rational deliberation’ or ‘consensus’ is not a challenge — well, it is for people who are insane… — therefore understanding ‘civic engagement’ understood as a function of producing ‘connection’ only addresses one part of community building. The capacity to articulate and then service the challenges that mobilise populations into action is absent.

The current media industry assumes that the mechanisms of liberal representative democracy function properly, therefore their only task is to produce a ‘voice’ or a ‘visibility’ (in the Foucaultian sense) for a given population to air their views in a ‘public sphere’. Rational debate allegedly then happens and a decision is taken that is derived from this debate. Politics does not function like this, if it ever did. Politics is not a mission to produce consensus; that is the challenge of politicians, not the challenge of politics. To appropriate Plato, ‘producing consensus’ is a game of projecting shadows on a wall in a situation designed to fix subjects in a seat of citizenship. Here is the shadow of ‘participation’ produced by airing your views, etc. It is the myth circulated by Melbourne Lord Mayor Robert Doyle and his comments regarding #OccupyMelbourne protesters having ‘enough time’ to ‘make their point’. Their challenge was to not to express a point, but to occupy a space in solidarity.

To reiterate this point: The shadow game is the challenge of politicians, but it is not the challenge of politics. Politics is a mission to articulate a given challenge that implicates an already concerned cohort of the population so as to mobilise the population and address the challenge, hopefully solving it. The Greens get this. Labor has tried to, but is terrible at articulating the challenges it is engaging with. I have no idea about what challenges the Coalition thinks it needs to address; they seem to be politicians devoid of politics, existing purely within the shadow game. Strangely, the only politician who has done anything innovative about this recently (and I don’t agree with much of his party’s social policies) is Bob Katter. To appropriate Waleed Aly, politics is not like professional sport. I couldn’t care less about what some foolish sportsperson got up to on the weekend and how this might affect their career, but I know others find this interesting. Politicians are tools for addressing the challenges that can not be addressed by individuals, they are not celebrities trying to address ritualised forms of challenge (i.e. sport). By covering politics like sport, the challenges that politicans are meant to address instead become ritualised into ‘goals’, ‘good moves’, etc following a meta-language that an audience is familiar with. By covering politicians like they are playing a sport, the media ritualises that challenges of politics.

Beyond the commentariat no one cares, and my language can not be too strong on this point, about the personal challenges faced by politicians (who will be leader, etc.). The utter stupidity of the MSM’s lampooning of Allan Asher and the Greens for the Senate estimates debacle is a classic example. The media narrative produced in the MSM focused on some alleged indescretion by Asher and Green’s Senator Hansen-Young. Is this the ‘challenge’ that the population is interested in? Some nonsense ‘sideshow’ political stoush? Why did Asher do what he did? What ‘challenge’ was he trying to articulate that lead to him getting ‘resigned’ by the Federal Labor government? Surely this is the only question worth asking for a serious political journalist? The rest is playing the shadow game.

In summary: First, talking about community without a discussion of the challenges that mobilise this community is missing the political point. Second, the current MSM seems content to focus on the challenges faced by politicians, and do not focus on the challenges faced by communities.

We need a news-based media worthy of the challenges faced by an entire population, not worthy of the personal challenges faced by professional politicians. I’ll be very happy if the internet is messing with the shadow game of MSM and party politicians.